Royal Dressing Down
Posted on 1-Octber-2012
About one month ago, some newspapers published photographs of Henry of Wales, third in the line of succession to Elizabeth Windsor, the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom, cavorting naked at some place in Las Vegas. Later, in the month of September, a French newspaper published photographs of a bare-breasted Katherine of Cambridge, wife of William of Cambridge, second in the line succession to Elizabeth Windsor. As has happened on similar occasions in the past, this time too a number of assorted pundits cried foul and talked of high sounding principles like right to privacy. Some even said the notorious paparazzi dogging people thus are a nuisance. Some reminded people of the death of Diana, former wife of Charles of Wales, heir to Elizabeth's throne, caused by her chauffeur--reportedly drunk on his steering wheel-- trying to give the slip to the same abominable tribe of paparazzi. Some did demur, saying that people seeking stardom, as members of the British Royal family certainly do, can hardly encourage publicity that shows their painted faces and cavil at the publicity that shows their warts. An entire propaganda campaign is organised to show Henry of Wales--at the end of the day only one of dozens of other British pilots doing duty in Afghanistan--flying his helicopter there or the grand old BBC television's reporters following William and Katherine of Cambridge in their recent foreign sortie, while one reporter drooled over the increasing confidence of Katherine as a public speaker after she delivered a one minute speech about nothing at all from a prepared text.
Already in the last quarter of the last century, men appearing anything more than embarrassed about the appearance of their picture in the nude or women screaming in horror if their bare torsos were seen by someone either live or in print would have sounded risible. Streakers had become news many years ago and been forgotten about. Feminists burning brassieres in open air happened decades ago. In the first decade of the present century a British artist--painter? sculptor?--arranged a very large number of men and women in the nude in open air in what was for him an aesthetic pattern and presented it as a work of art. When some members of a Jain ascetic sect walk naked out in the open in India, hardly anyone so much as turns his head to stare at them. Any male interested in ogling at bare female torsos can have his fill by walking at any well known beach resort in west Europe or North America. And, as if to make the human mammary glands look nothing more than any other part of the anatomy, a number of women recently marched bare breasted in Manhattan to register their protest against some demeaning remarks about women made by some American politician. In fact if the defenders of the royals' privacy had not made so much noise, most readers of newspapers which published the picture of a naked Henry or a bare-breasted Katherine would have spent a moment looking at those pictures, some might even have spent another moment thinking of their endowments and moved on and would have forgotten about them when the next day's newspapers came. Probably, no one would have thought of Henry as a modern day Adonis or of Katherine as a Venus Anadyomene. While talking of Katherine's breasts, the BBC reporter just could not help underline the irony of Katherine receiving welcoming garlands from bare-breasted women in Tuvalu--obviously unselfconscious about the state of their undress and equally obviously more generously endowed in that part of their anatomy than Katherine--while her lawyers were arguing in French courts for an injunction against a French publication printing more photos of her bare torso. Whatever it was that was behind the reaction of Henry's friends or of Katherine and her husband, it was certainly not outrage over breach of their privacy. Was it some vestigial prudery? Was it posturing? Or the reason for their discomfort could be something else.
Monarchies in today's world are anachronisms. No modern monarch claims divine right though some claim some kind of sanctified ancestry--the kings of Morocco claim descent from Khadija, the first wife of Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam and the kings of Jordan claim a kinship relationship with Mohammad as they supposedly belong to his tribe, though probably no more than a handful of their subjects believe that they have inherited any of Mohammad's holiness. Some like the Saudi kings survive by force of arms, by gagging their citizens and by alliance with some of the most obscurantist among the Muslim ulema; some like the smaller Gulf sheikhdoms rely on mercenaries recruited from among retired commandos of Europe and others on palace guards and intelligence men and security personnel seconded by friendly countries. Some continue on their thrones by creating an aura that they are venerated by their people though their real support comes from the armed forces and their authority reinforced by archaic laws against lese majeste. Others, such as the Scandinavian monarchies or the monarchies of the low countries survive by by and large keeping out of the public eye, content in the quiet enjoyment of their privileges and wealth. Likewise with Juan Carlos of Spain, restored to his throne by a dying Franco and when recently he was caught having gone on an expensive elephant hunt in Africa while the Spanish government was heaping economic austerity and pain on the people of the country, he quickly made a public appearance, duly contrite.
In this gallery of modern monarchies, the British one is sui generis. Another monarchy, that of the Vatican is also one of a kind, but more of that not here. British monarchs lost nearly all their powers in 1688 when James II, the last Stuart king was dethroned and chased out of the country. Such powers as remained after that event which was according to one British politician neither glorious nor a revolution were slowly eroded during the eighteenth century. Even the imperious half German Victoria was unable to regain any of the lost powers. But ever since Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, British monarchs have thrived on an elaborate image of royal splendour and grandeur. The institution has survived partly on inertia and partly because a small but influential class of privileged Britons sees in its survival a guarantee of its own privileges. A few years ago, the Economist newspaper of London, no left-wing radical pamphlet, published a special section on British monarchy. One of the most curious arguments in favour of the monarchy was that it generated tourist traffic towards the United Kingdom. But the concluding argument in favour of the monarchy was that since it did no harm it was not worth the trouble trying to abolish it. As for the privileged groups seeing oneness in their interests and those of the royal family, the best exemplar of such a group is the present British Prime Minister himself. The image making of the royal family continues unabated. In this decade itself Elizabeth Windsor had a year long celebration of her eightieth birthday complete with all the attendant publicity. The golden jubilee of her coronation became another major media event with an attempt at creating a live replica of a nineteenth century painting by Canaletto of a tableau of the Thames in central London. In the nineteen eighties the wedding of Charles and Diana became a fairy tale. Latterly, the wedding of William and Katherine is being made into another fairy tale. Poor Camilla Parker Bowles had to make do with a much more modest wedding because divorce--in this case both Charles and Camilla were divorcees--still sits uneasily with the British monarch's archaic title of Defender of the Faith and his equally archaic position as the head of the Church of England. Successive monarchs have found it difficult to divest themselves of either title because their claim to privilege and wealth--Elizabeth Windsor is reputed to be one of the wealthiest women in the world-- is based on really or supposedly ancient traditions and considering every part of that tradition as sacred becomes an end in itself.
There are two problems with all this make believe. The first is that the spirit of republicanism everywhere has been getting stronger. And the second is that there are always people everywhere who take delight in bringing down to level ground those who have been put on pedestals. Republicanism means that more and more people question the right of a family to generous remuneration and special privileges at public expense for no other reason than their descent. This spirit itself will ensure that monarchies will probably all disappear in the next few decades. Members of royal families have increasingly to prove to their citizens that they are in some way special or that they are useful servants of the people or that they are unifying symbols of nationhood--this last mantra is repeated by most British politicians-- and every time some iconoclast tries to show that the British royals are no different from ordinary people or that the royals with all their foibles can hardly be worthy symbols of British nationhood, the royals and their friends feel uneasy. Thus a cameraman who catches Henry naked or another who catches a Sarah Ferguson or a Katherine of Cambridge bare breasted ends up showing that after all they are no different from other bipedal apes and not as intelligent or capable as some commoners. Showing them stripped of their clothes is like showing them stripped of all their dignity and solemnity. Some monarchs like the Emperor of Japan or the King of Thailand protect themselves from irreverent curiosity by building cocoons round themselves. Others like the British monarch are caught in the game of trying to live up to the images they themselves or others have created for them. They do and will always feel uncomfortable whenever the public tries to see behind the images. It is this that explains the protestations at the action of the paparazzi for the fear of an entire population bursting out in chorus saying that the queen, the princes and the princesses have no clothes will always be great. It is not the right to privacy that is their concern but the fear of the spell being broken.